The Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks of both “the ministry of mercy” and “the service of charity.” The expression “the ministry of mercy” refers to the calling of the deacons, whereas “the service of charity” refers to the task of the congregation. This shows that deacons and congregation are both involved in the work of mercy, though each has its own task. With regard to the Deacons we speak of “ministry,” since it involves those ordained to office. With regard to the members of the congregation we speak of “service.” Combining the two expressions from the Form for Ordination, explains the title of this chapter: the service of mercy. In this chapter we will deal with the task of the deacons, and of the congregation towards those in need. In the chapter about the communion of saints we have dealt with some of the elements that will demand our attention in this part as well. Although the communion of saints includes more than the service of charity, there are several connections. The service of charity is especially concerned with the care for those who are suffering, who are “under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty.”

1. Scripture

This part is divided in three sections. First we will deal with the mercy of God, then the mercy shown by the congregation, and thirdly the mercy shown by the office-bearers, in this case, the deacons.

1.1. Mercy of God

Exodus 34:6

Mercy is the feeling of compassion for the other who is in need or help. In the context of the covenant it is the LORD’s compassion for sinners. It is often connected to His steadfast love and faithfulness. This shows that this mercy is not based on anything God’s people have done, but is founded in the LORD’s faithfulness to His word. The LORD’s dealings with Israel are a powerful demonstration and proof of His mercy.

Psalm 103:6-8

The ultimate proof of this mercy is the coming of the Son of God.

Luke 1:68,72

Not only was the Lord Jesus Himself the proof of God’s mercy, He also showed the mercy of God in how He dealt with God’s people.

Matthew 11:4-5; Matthew 20:28; Mark 8:2-3; Titus 3:4-5

1.2. The Service of Mercy

Already under the Old Testament the LORD commanded His people to show mercy to the needy. Because He is the God of mercy, He wants His people to be merciful.

Micah 6:6-8

To teach His people this service of mercy the LORD gave several laws to take care of and protect the needy, the fatherless and widows.

Deuteronomy 15:4; Deuteronomy 15:11; Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 23:22; Leviticus 25:35-37 Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Deuteronomy 24:15

One of the reasons for God’s punishment during the time of the prophets is their refusal to take care of the needy.

Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 10:2

The Lord Jesus reminded God’s people of this call.

Matthew 9:13; Matthew 23:23; Mark 10:43-44; John 13:15

He showed the importance of this service of mercy with the parable about the sheep and the goats.

Matthew 25:40

The apostles continued this instruction of the Lord Jesus, calling the church to show mercy. They also gave the example, e.g. in the collection for the needy in Judea.

Romans 12:8; 2Corinthians 8:14-15; Galatians 5:13; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16

1Timothy 6:18-19; James 2:13; 1 John 3:16-18

1.3. The Ministry of Mercy

“For the sake of this service of love, Christ has given deacons to His church. When the apostles realized that they would have to give up preaching the Word of God if they had to devote their full attention to the daily support of the needy, they assigned this duty to seven brothers chosen by the congregation.” (Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons) The task of these seven brothers was not exactly identical to the task of the deacons today, but the task of the deacons finds its beginning in the work of these seven brothers.

Acts 6:1

The apostle Paul gave instruction concerning the task of the deacons.

1Timothy 3:8-10

It seems that also the services of others, especially widows, were used for this service of mercy.

1Timothy 5:9

Finally, the apostles gave leadership in the collection for needy brotherhood in Judea.

Acts 11:29; Romans 15:25-26; Romans 15:31; 2Corinthians 9:1; 2Corinthians 9:12-13

2. Confessions

2.1. Belgic Confession

In the Belgic Confession the care for the needy is mentioned in connection with the communion of saints and the task of the office-bearers.

Article 28

They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline and bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.

Article 30

…and also that the poor and all afflicted are helped and comforted according to their need.

2.2 Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism points out the task to show mercy in connection with the communion of saints and with the 4th, 6th, and 8th commandments.

Q/A 55. What do you understand by the communion of the saints?

First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him and share in all His treasures and gifts.

Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.

Q/A. 103. That I diligently attend the church of God, … to give Christian offerings for the poor.

Q/A. 107. God commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness toward him, to protect him from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

Q/A 111. What does God require of you in this commandment?

I must promote my neighbour’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.

2.3 Church Order

Article. 23 The Office of Deacon.

The specific duties of the office of deacon are: to see to the good progress of the service of charity in the congregation; to acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties, and to exhort the members of Christ’s body to show mercy; further, to gather and manage the offerings and to distribute them in Christ’s Name according to need. they shall encourage and comfort with the Word of God those who receive the gifts of Christ’s love, and promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord.

2.1 Liturgical Forms

Form for Public Profession of Faith:

Fourth, do you firmly resolve to commit your whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of His Church?

Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

By the same Spirit we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body. For the apostle Paul says, because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. As one bread is baked out of many grains and one wine is pressed out of many grapes, so we all, incorporated in Christ by faith, are together one body. For the sake of Christ, who so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another not just in words but also in deeds.

Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons:

The whole section that explains the Ministry of Mercy.


You deacons, be faithful and diligent in the gathering of gifts and distribute them cheerfully to those who need assistance, especially to the widows and orphans. Do good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. Support those who are burdened with cares or who are lonely. Give in your ministry of mercy a good example to the congregation of the service to which all are called by Christ Jesus.

Form for the Solemnization of Marriage:

Work faithfully in your daily calling, that you may support your family and also help those in need.

2.5 Prayers

Prayer 2: A Prayer for all the needs of Christendom.

We remember before Thee all those whom Thou art chastening with poverty, imprisonment, physical illness, or spiritual distress. may it please Thee to heal the sick and to restore soundness of mind to the mentally ill. Surround those who are handicapped in body or mind with thy care and bless all that is done to help them. Lift up those who are cast down. Be a Comforter to the widowers, a Protector to the widows, a Father to the orphans. Show thy love to the lonely, Thy strength to the weak, Thy grace to the dying, Thy sustaining power to the bereaved. Grant that all trials may yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Glorify Thyself in the faith, love, and endurance of all those whom Thou hast called to Thy eternal glory in Christ.

Prayer 9 and 10: Prayer for the Sick and the Spiritually Distressed.

Prayer 11: A Morning prayer.

Comfort the distressed and show thy mercy and help to all who call upon Thy Holy Name in sickness and other trials of life.

Prayer 12: An Evening Prayer.

Bestow comfort and rest upon all that are ill, bowed down with grief, or afflicted with spiritual distress. Thy steadfast love endures for ever. Do not forsake the works of thy hands.

Prayer 15: An Opening Prayer for the Meeting of the Deacons.

3. Goals and Purposes

The Lord calls us to show hospitality, generosity, and mercy, so that the weak and needy may share abundantly in the joy of God’s people. No one in the congregation may live without comfort under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty. This determines then also the task of the deacons. It is their responsibility to see to the good progress of this service of charity in the church. The goal in all this is that in this way God’s children will increase in love to one another and to all men.

4. History

We learn from Acts that in the church right after Pentecost there was a genuine care for each other. At the same time we also read in the letters of the apostles several admonitions to show mercy for each other, which indicates that this care was not always practised the way it should have been. The subsequent history of the church shows that the service of mercy had its ups and downs. In general one can say that as deformation set in, this was also seen in the service of mercy. The opposite is true as well, when the Lord gave reformation the service of mercy changed for the better.

In the Middle Ages things change. We see the emergence of hierarchy. The bishop took all the power to himself. Many of the other offices became superfluous. The deacon was kept in name, but he was no more than a helper of the bishop. At the same time the doctrine of salvation by good works placed the service of mercy in a meritorious context. Showing mercy was a means to earn salvation. With the Reformation both elements changed. The deacon received his office back. The Reformed churches made sure that in the Church Order his office was properly spelled out. In addition, the service of mercy was placed in the context of God’s mercy in Christ for us. You see this e.g. in the connection between the work of the deacons and the Lord’s Supper. The service of mercy is the service of thankfulness.

The Articles of Wesel of 1568 give evidence of the Reformed approach

Chapter V –  Of the Deacons

[1.] It is completely certain from the testimony of Scripture that the office of deacon is that they serve the tables, that is, they come to the help of the poor in their needs and provide them with what is necessary by gathering the alms.

[5.] It would be beneficial when especially in the larger congregations, two kinds of deacons are appointed. The first will apply themselves to the gathering and distribution of the alms and take care at the same time, that if any goods are bequeathed to the poor, these will be requisitioned in a legal manner and faithfully will be distributed to the beneficiaries. [6.] The other part will mainly take care of the sick, wounded and those in prison. Besides the gift of faithfulness and zeal, these [deacons] should be endowed also with the gift of comforting and with more than a general knowledge of Scripture. They will diligently ask the elders whether there are sick and weak in their wards who need comfort and uplifting.

In the 19th century the service of mercy was attacked from another side. The government took it upon itself to do this work. The 19th century witnessed the industrial revolution. Many people moved to the cities, and ended up living in appalling circumstances. Add to this the increasing secularization and the stage is set for the government to take care of the social welfare of the nation. It must be said that many Christians who were concerned about the poverty and secularization set up charitable organizations. These organization did a lot of good work. This does not do away with the sad reality that the church did not always see her task. In the Netherlands this changed with the Secession of 1834 and the Doleantie of 1886. Again it was seen as the task of the church to take care of the needy. Men like Prof. L. Lindeboom and Dr. A. Kuyper worked hard to make the churches once again aware of its calling.

5. Today

In order to stimulate the service of mercy in our situation we have to have a good understanding of the world in which we live, and the needs we meet. Our society is characterized by prosperity and social safety. The government promises to take care of us from cradle to grave. Even if we are in the midst of cut backs, this philosophy remains the same. At the same time we note that we live in a society which, to use the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:12, is increasingly growing cold. The words of 2Timothy 3:2-5 apply to our society. Men will become lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive etc.

Living in such a world has influence on us and we do well to note what is happening in society around us. To mention some elements. Our world is characterized by mobility, hurry and speed. People move easily, and communication breaks down boundaries. The result is that personal relationships become shallow. We also witness a terrible selfishness. It seems that the idol worship of the past now culminates in the worship of “self”. Much entertainment, for example, is oriented on “self.” We are told not to judge others, in order words, to leave each other alone. The result is loneliness. Indeed, this is where the worship of “self” ends up: utter loneliness. Our society is also adversely effected by the prosperity we have. Materialism is having its hay day. People live for bread and games. Another element that we should not overlook is the change in work environment. With the coming of the computer technology the work place has changed. It is no longer so that once you know a trade you can keep it for the rest of your life. The skill and experience of older people are of less value . In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult for older members of society to find work. Last but not least, we witness the breakdown of the family unit. This is partly because of the teachings of feminism. The fact that so many mothers go out to work has also contributed to the break down of the family. Another reason is the push to legalize so-called alternative ways of living together. The family is no longer the place where the next generation is prepared for the task ahead.

All these things influence us as well, and has consequences for the service of mercy. On the one hand we can say that this service is so necessary in a world which is growing cold. On the other hand, we witness also among us the results of individualism, materialism and changes in the family. Government social assistance programs can form a direct attack on the communion of saints. In helping the members to show mercy we must also open their eyes for these things. We have asked the members whether they see the need of others and understand what they can do to show care for the other members. We have to stress that we have to come to know each other, and must be willing to be known by others. We have to speak about the (false) claim of the state that it will give security. We have to discuss whether and how we use government programs and why it is that people rather go to Social Services than to the deacons.

6. Calling of Congregation

The Lord calls us to show hospitality, generosity, and mercy, so that the weak and needy may share abundantly in the joy of God’s people. No one in the congregation may live without comfort under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty (Form for Ordination). The charge to the congregation is: Take care that the deacons have sufficient means to fulfil their ministry. be good stewards of all that the Lord has entrusted to you. Remember Christ, your example in serving the church of God.

The Form speaks about showing hospitality, generosity, and mercy, so that those who are in need and are suffering may share in the joy of our redemption in Christ. The focus of this calling is in the first place with regard to the brothers and sisters in the church. It is not easy to assess how this functions in the congregation. Do the members show hospitality to those who are needy? Is there generosity toward those who are in need? Does the service of mercy continue in this congregation? It is not easy to answer these questions because so much is done that is not necessarily noticed by others. This is good, because the service of mercy is not done to impress others, but to show the love of Christ. Yet, it can happen that we come across a situation where this service of mercy is not functioning as it should. It can happen that lonely members complain about the lack of company, or that there are those who have a hard time to make ends meet feel that what is given is not given cheerfully. It will be good to address this calling of the congregation on visits. The visits by the elders and deacons as well as the preaching and catechism teaching have to give help and direction in this regard. We should not hesitate to give the example ourselves. At times it can be necessary to organize means in which we can serve one another. The services and talents of others in the congregation can be employed in this way. The Deacons can stimulate this work. M. Assink gives a helpful chart in this regard, which is added at the end of this article.

The members of the church also have an obligation in view of the need in this world. Scripture teaches us to do good to all men (Galatians 6:10). This can involve donations for charitable causes, giving to local food drives or disaster relief. The Deacons can stimulate this as well.

7. The Lord’s Supper

Both the Form for Ordination and the Church Order say that the Deacons shall promote with word and deed the unity and fellowship in the Holy Spirit which the congregation enjoys at the table of the Lord. In this way God’s children will increase in love to one another and to all men. The table that signs and seals God’s mercy is the basis for the service of mercy in the congregation. We have communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit. But by “the same Spirit we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body.” “For the sake of Christ, who so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one other, and shall show this to one another not just in words but also in deeds. Both elders and deacons can appeal to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in encouraging the congregation in the service of mercy.

8. Evaluation

  1. There are several organized ways in which those who are in need can be taken care of. How do we involve the services and talents of the members? Are the Deacons involved in this?
  2. Each congregation has its own composition. Are there members who need special attention, e.g. elderly, handicapped, lonely? How is this functioning?
  3. How can we better understand the needs which members face?
  4. How can we help the members to grow in love to one another and to all men?
  5. Is there an awareness of the need in our society/world? How can we stimulate this?
  6. Are there matters which you want to bring to the attention of the meeting? Why? What can we do about them?

9. Literature

  • Y. DeJong, “The Ministry of Mercy for Today” reprinted in Diakonia, I,2 – IV,3
  • VanDam, “The Diaconal Task: some old testament roots and their continuing significance” in Diakonia, II,2
  • Nederveen, “The Task of the Deacons for Today” in Diakonia, V,1
  • N. Hendriks, “The Congregation and her Diaconate” in Diakonia, IV, 2
  • Assink, “Diaconate with Perspective” Diakonia, VIII,2-XI,1



Circumstances Possible results Deacons Congregation
Chronic illness house-bound

becoming lonely


draw up a visiting roster

regular visits

domestic help

Old age decreased mobility

fewer contacts


becoming lonely


being alert to hidden needs

investigate vacation prospects

doing chores/errands

showing concern

being a ready listener

House-bound becoming lonely

fewer contacts

visiting roster investigate vacation prospects regular attention

doing the shopping

Unfit for work diminishing contacts

feeling worthless

financial problems

making contacts

investigate work alternatives

financial support


showing concern

Unemployed feeling useless

fewer contacts

disruption of family relations

sympathy & empathy

sensitive to money problems

encourage self-employment

showing concern

direct involvement

Physically Handicapped impaired mobility

diminishing contacts

scheduling of transportation

doing chores/errands

recording worship services

showing concern
Financial problems hidden poverty

increasing debts

helping to budget

financial support

invite the children

birthday extras

Living alone feeling lonely

being lonesome

giving comfort

inform congregation

making contacts (e.g. by way of hobbies)

giving attention (e.g. prepared meals)

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